Takeaways for Bengaluru from New York City’s waste management plans

Bengaluru qualifies to be in the low-income category as per World Bank classification, with investments made more on collection and poor quality landfills.

To start gaining some perspective on and compare waste management practices across the world, it may be useful to have a look at a couple of documents produced by international organisations. As we will see, their approach is largely informed by income levels classifications, but that should not stop us from learning across income-groups.

Comparing waste management systems across the world

Firstly, the UN-Habitat’s report “Solid Waste Management in the World’s Cities” issued in 2010 is a good place to start. The report aims at filling a gap in our understanding of Solid Waste Management (MSW) around the world and across income levels. The Integrated Waste Management Model (IWMM) used in the report – developed by WASTE advisers – allows for a study of the complex and multi-dimensional systems in question. The key areas of inquiry are the following: the roles of the different stakeholders (waste pickers, recycling companies, the municipality etc.); institutional, social, environmental, political, financial and technical aspects; and the different stages from waste generation to disposal.

IWMM takes into account aspects of waste systems that are too often looked over by the authorities in charge – and that can greatly reduce our frustration towards Bangalore’s waste issues. Indeed, waste systems are complex and require us to step back to gain some perspective on how it is connected and interacting with the other components of the city. In Bengaluru, one may want look at – but not solely – the governance structure (BBMP and its contractors), the quality of the roads, or the citizen’s awareness regarding waste (along with the discourse and sensitisation campaigns around it).

Another report – by the World Bank this time – is the “Global Review of Solid Waste Management”. Once again, it classifies SWM practices by income levels: low, middle and high. Some of the most striking differences between these three categories, the report tells us, are the proportion of collection costs out of the total cost of SWM, the absence of incineration technology in low income countries, the preponderance of open dumping and the quality of dumping sites. Thus, low income countries collection costs represent 80 to 90% of total cost, while it is less than 10% for high income countries.

Incineration technologies are scarce in low-income countries due to high capital, technical and operational costs. Low-technology dumping sites in low-income countries result in the pollution of aquifers, water bodies and the ambient air.

Bengaluru partly qualifies for the World Bank’s “Low-Income” category with most of its SWM budget allocated to collection, poor quality landfills and the absence of incineration facilities. However, it scores well for segregation at source – with estimates varying from 20 to 30% – door-to-door collection, recycling and composting. Recycling and composting plants exist in Bengaluru, though they are not used at full capacity for various reasons including the incentive system in place for collection contractors to channel mixed waste to landfills.

A high income city: New York

On the other side of the spectrum of income-levels, we have the city of New York. And surprisingly, it offers some grounds for comparison with Bengaluru: indeed, New York has a long history of dependence on landfills.

Though New York is quite close to Bengaluru as for its total population, the amount of waste it produces per year nears ten folds Bengaluru’s output – with respectively 14 million tons and 1.2 to 1.5 million tons per year.

All along the 20th century, New York based its garbage system on a number of landfills for disposal. Even when incineration practices were peaking in the 60’s, two third of the city’s waste was still sent to landfills. As a result of years of citizen contestation, the last city’s landfill was closed in December 2001.

However, the closure only directed the waste further away from the city: the City Council adopted a twenty-year plan for exporting waste to more remote landfills. The new model relied on a truck-based system that, along with a fleet of transfer stations, took the waste away from the city and poured it into neighbouring states’ landfills, recycling facilities and waste-to-energy plants. Waste would sometimes travel as far as 750 miles.

The twenty-year plan allowed the municipality to avoid both the political conundrum of having to build waste-to-energy plants in their own area and the large infrastructure costs associated to it; on the other hand, it was not sound in the long-run. Firstly, costs were bound to increase as surrounding landfills closed and distances to new spots increased. Secondly, the environmental impact of carrying waste across large distances would rise with time along with decreasing air quality – remember that thousands of diesel-fuelled trucks were required daily to carry garbage around.

Part of the 26,000 tons of solid waste that New York City produces each day. Tugs tow heavily-laden barges down the east river to the overflowing staten island landfill. source:U.S. National Archives and Records Administration/ Wikimedia commons

In response to the harmful dependency on trucks, the municipality conceived building a barge transportation system as an alternative however cost estimations grew higher than expected and the project was dropped in 2003. Subsequent successful attempts to shift waste transportation from trucks to rail and barge will follow however, so that, since 2005, emissions have decreased by 22 percent in the solid waste sector. Today, waste management activities still account for 4% of the New York’s total CO2 emissions – knowing that figure, however, is a first step towards its reduction.

In 2006, New York issued its Comprehensive Solid Waste Management Plan (SWMP), a plan that aimed to achieve 25% diversion rate by 2007. By educating its citizens on recycling and reuse issues, the city was planning to divert as much metal, glass, plastic and paper as possible away from the landfills.

In 2011, the PlaNYC comprehensive sustainability plan raised the bar to 75% diversion rate for 2030. Many initiatives followed: a voluntary residential organics recycling program in parts of Staten Island, Brooklyn and the Bronx; the expansion of the school food waste composting pilot to 400 public schools in 2013; the increase of recycling public bins; events for residents to safely dispose of textiles and clothing, electronics, and other household hazardous waste; laws against the sale of polystyrene foam products.

Overall, New York follows multiple strategies, in most part aimed at building up alternatives to landfills, reducing waste produced, decreasing costs and being moreenvironment-friendly. And it has worked! By 2013, about 50% of the waste was diverted from landfills. In 2015, PlaNYC was renamed “One NYC” and the former 75% diversion target climbed up to 100% for 2030.

Consulting the “One NYC” webpage, here are the goals currently put forward:

  • Expanding the organics program to serve all New Yorkers by the end of 2018.

  • Enhancing curbside recycling by offering a single-stream recycling by 2020.

  • Reducing the use of plastic bags.

  • Giving every New Yorkers the opportunity to recycle and reduce waste.

  • Making all schools “Zero Waste Schools.”

  • Expanding opportunities to recycle textiles and electronic waste.

  • Developing an equitable blueprint for a Save-As-You-Throw program to reduce waste.

  • Reducing commercial waste disposal by 90% by 2030.

Notice something? – these objectives are rather close to Bangalore’s!

New York’s take-aways for Bangalore

Both cities share one major problem: their reliance on landfills. Both have agreed on similar alternatives and instruments to put them into place – namely segregation, recycling, and reusing. The guiding principles are pretty much the same.

However, the result on the ground differs substantially to say the least. But this only emphasises that what Bengaluru needs is to let go of the talks about what it needs for its waste management and focus on how it intends to do it.

Let’s come back to the Integrated Waste Management Model (IWMM) for a moment and consider the various dimensions of waste management.

The IWMM tells us that there is a plethora of other factors to take into account – including social, political and institutional factors, but also the respective roles of the stakeholders – to be capable of understanding the waste management system of a given place. Bengaluru, despite good plans and strategies, has failed consistently to meet its objectives.

At the end of the day, a sound approach will require addressing all fronts by changing behaviors through education and incentives, strengthening regulations, investing in new infrastructure, and working closely with the communities and industries that generate waste. All of this Bengaluru has already started working on. Now it needs to do it more and better.

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